people walking away with shadows behind them

The shadow – and the legacy of the wild woman

In Insight and Experience by LivingNowLeave a Comment

Some 50 years ago, a small band of wild women, utterly tired of traditional patriarchal values, ventured into the unknown in search of a better way. What they discovered at the frontier of human potential would change everything. They returned bearing the gifts of postmodernism, including the civil rights movement, feminism, the environmental movement and new, more sensitive approaches to relationships, parenting, education, and the workplace.

 As always, attached to new treasures come new challenges. Just as the worldly adventurers of old discovered not only new lands but new diseases, not only new food but new poisons, so too the wild women came upon mental and emotional challenges for which they were unprepared. Some at the new frontier are now lost, some are sick and wounded, many are calling for help.

Support is on the way, but this is the mother of all missions, and strategy is proving hard to find. They don’t want rescuing. They don’t want to come back to the old ways, but they desperately need new tools that are adequate to the new challenges.

This story is not really about them, for you and I suffer the same fate. The wild woman lives within those of us, men and women alike, who have moved beyond the values of modernity. She was the first to jettison the old stories that told us how to behave, how to parent, how to conduct our relationships and what it meant to be a man or a woman. If you are a rebel with a cause, then she lives within you too.

She is the feeling that will not be limited by thought. She is the freedom to say what she feels that rebels against the expectations of others. She is the one who knows she is right even when the facts suggests otherwise. She is easily bored by the antics of the mind, demanding a blend of passion and clarity in the masculine that is not easy to find. She is unpredictable, passionate, sometimes moody and occasionally looks a lot like the Hindu goddess Kali, the great destroyer and slayer of men.

In a moment of radical freedom, she broke from the shore of conventional thinking and led us courageously into the infinite ocean of feelings. In this ocean, the illusion of separateness dissolves. The unique waves of our individual identities are intuited as At-One in the ocean of Spirit. All boundaries and barriers collapse before the enormous force of unrestrained spontaneity. Floating in those warm waters feels like being born again from the loins of the Goddess.

The true bounty of this ocean is the harvest of our unrealised potentials (including our Buddha nature). If we did not abandon ourselves from time to time to its seductive call, we would be trapped forever in the straight-jacket of consensus reality. By the 1960s, after two world wars, a depression and incalculable human suffering, it was clear that we needed change. She gave it to us, big time. For that, we owe her homage.

The peril of this same ocean lurks in its dark depths as the biting creatures of our shadow. We all have them. They come into existence when, as children, healthy needs are repressed by well-meaning others trying to teach us self-control. They are also born of trauma, be it at the hands of abusers or due to the whims of life thrusting misfortune upon us.

For many, the shadow is harmless enough even though it nibbles on us from time to time. For others, where oppression was aggressive, the shadow can emerge like a child in a temper tantrum, screaming the house down until they get their way, or complaining relentlessly until the world can take no more. Or it may be the quiet kind that inwardly burns until we are cooked in a stew of discontent and negativity.

The postmodern stage of consciousness is especially vulnerable to the antics of the shadow. With postmodernism, we learn to respect all points of view, not just those of our gender, race or culture. We become deeply sensitive, striving to ensure that everyone is included in everything. The shadow then pops up to demand its view also be respected, and we are inclined to oblige. The trouble starts though if it doesn’t get its way.

Shadow appears in life as the behaviour of a frustrated child. Because our needs were suppressed in childhood, when they try and break free they are still at the developmental level of a child, employing strategies that are mostly oblivious to the needs of others and not especially skilful. We blame others for our failings. We refuse to accept responsibility or be accountable for our actions. We leave challenging relationships or stay in bad ones for all the wrong reasons. We ignore or forget our promises and commitments. We live in the moment, refusing to be responsible for the fact that tomorrow does come, and that our actions do have consequences.

If left unchecked, our shadow declares war on the world around us, forever discontent that it is so insensitive to our needs. We become a victim, powerless and unhappy.

The difference between a child living in the now and someone like Eckhart Tolle embracing the ‘power of now’ is that Tolle has a well thought out rational basis for all he says and does. He spent years in contemplation, building his understanding of how the cosmos and psyche work. He embodies trans-rational wisdom, not pre-rational idealism. The shadow wants us to believe that our misty idealism is really spiritual intuition, but the two are as far apart as a baby and a Buddha. For all their qualities, babies are still helpless and dependent, while a Buddha can change the world.

Our shadow will control our lives until we can meet it honestly, and the only way to do that is through understanding and self-compassion. Not even meditation helps. The thing about shadow is that it is hidden from awareness. No matter how long you stare, it will not appear. Only the rational mind can understand how it works and reveal to us where it hides. When we finally uncover and own our shadow, compassion is what keeps the inner critic at bay.

Like any child, the shadow must learn about boundaries. If we fail to impose them within ourselves, we are vulnerable to a shadowy coup d’état of our psyche, turning us into unwitting tyrants that bully and manipulate our way through life. Ken Wilber calls this condition ‘Boomeritis’, where advanced postmodern mental capabilities get hijacked by a self-absorbed, narcissistic shadow persona.

The lynch-pin of how shadow works is that young children don’t have the capacity to understand context. As a two year old, if I am forcefully told to be quiet when spontaneously celebrating (say, in a church), I take on a story that says ‘celebration is NOT OK!’ and apply it as a universal truth. As an adult, when I feel the urge to celebrate, the story (or script) intervenes before I can act, leaving the joy locked in my body with nowhere to go. Resentment, discontent and even depression can follow.

 As long as the story is unconscious, I am prone to projecting it onto others. It goes like this… I want to celebrate, but I sense a clear message that says I can’t. Because I don’t realise the message is coming from me, then it must be coming from YOU! I then get annoyed because you never let me celebrate, and meanwhile you are wondering what on earth is going on. If I persist in blaming you while refusing to do my inner work, we now have a recipe for mistrust, anger and the eventual demise of our relationship.

This is a story common to us all. We all have shadow elements that we unwittingly project onto others, especially our intimate partners. There are certainly many examples of others trying to control us, which we must rightfully resist. But so often, the story we tell ourselves about the faults of others has much more to do with us than them. So how can we tell the difference between outside forces and inner stories projected onto the outside world?

There are two ways… intense feelings, and negative thoughts. When a need arises for expression but is blocked by an inner story, the energy of the need appears as feelings that get stronger and stronger the longer the need is held down. Negative thoughts come directly from the story that is telling me how terrible it will be if my need is allowed to emerge.

The antidote is the same in both cases: start with the story. We must be honest with ourselves about the story we are telling, for only then can we question whether it’s true. As Byron Katie is so adept at pointing out, it is our attachment to our stories that causes us suffering. Buddhism says the same thing. Every event has another point of view that is equally valid. If our story induces negative thinking, we can be sure there is another, deeper story that better serves the well-being of all concerned.

Tuning in to our feelings and stories is a vital skill to learn if we are to integrate our shadow. With awareness, we learn to catch negative self-talk and to enquire into the truth of the story. We eventually discover we are never deserving of our negativity, but rather of empathy, compassion and loving kindness. We realise that we are not guilty, that we deserve no shame or blame, and that deep within us beats a divine heart searching for the way home, albeit clumsily.

When we are negative towards ourselves, the hostility or ignorance of others is usually unbearable. When we practise self-empathy and inner loving kindness, we see in the poor behaviour of ourselves and others the underlying pain of an unmet need, which gives rise to compassion. We can still say no, we can still set boundaries, but we are not emotionally overwhelmed or prone to negativity when another behaves badly towards us. We give to them what we give to ourselves… understanding, patience, clear boundaries and an open heart.

If we follow the wild woman within and dive deeply into our feelings, we are called inevitably to open our minds to the same degree that we open our hearts. We must develop our capacity to meet new and intense feelings with a penetrating intelligence that can see through the surface ripples into the underlying need yearning for expression. We must develop our masculine qualities of analysis and discernment to match the new level of the feminine that the wild women ushered forth. We must understand and see through the antics of our shadow, or be fated to forever play out its unconscious dramas.

The way to achieve understanding is through contemplation. This is what men do when they go into their cave after a difficult moment. These days, men and women alike need quiet, alone time to just think. Those knotty little mental puzzles that just won’t go away are doorways into new levels of understanding that can empower us to act skilfully in a wide range of situations in service of the highest good.

It takes time to restructure a lifetime of mental habits; so be patient. If clarity is elusive, cut back on TV time and spend more time reading non-fiction. The intellect is like a muscle… it must be used often if it is to become fit to the task.

 If you are already skilled in your thinking but find yourself frustrated that progress is not faster, you may need to balance by opening more of your heart. For this, practise gratitude. Give thanks for this breath, for this amazing body, for this life with all its ups and downs. Give thanks for a planet that sustains us, for the beauty of the night sky, and for all those we love. To open further, consent to the presence of Grace (or Divine Love). All around you is a love beyond words. To taste it, you must consent to its presence. Try it often. With practice, it can open you like a sardine can.

If we are to engage the problems of our age, if we are to leave our grandchildren a planet still rich in beauty and biodiversity, we have no choice but to develop an adequate understanding of our global condition. The hearty gifts of the wild women must now be matched by the compassionate intelligence of the new man. Only when both are alive within us, dancing consciously through the minefield of global complexity, can we hope to be adequate to the challenges of our age.

Terrence Bishop is an ex software industry executive, now a writer, workshop facilitator, integral practitioner, and owner of the Worldview Centre venue near Maleny, Queensland.

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